Fragment of the book about Karlheinz Stockhausen’s operatic cycle LICHT.
Author: Monika Pasiecznik
Original language: Polish
STOCKHAUSEN’S LICHT IN TRADITION OF 20TH CENTURY ESOTERIC MODERNISM
In 1960’s Karlheinz Stockhausen moved to his new house, where he lived until died in 2007. Located in Kürten near Cologne, it is not simple cottage in regional style. Jonathan Cott: “Each of the thirteen white-walled, large-windowed rooms of the house – for which Stockhausen made the basic design – is an asymmetrical hexagon, no one room having the same size or view; no ceiling is straight, and only the floors are horizontal. From three to eleven steps lead into another room (many of the rooms are interconnected so that at first you often enter rooms you hadn’t expected, and conversely, every single room has a door leading outside to different kinds of trees, bushes and flowers. The effect is that of nature always coming inside and also of an expanse of lightness.”1
The house seems to be quite similar to Bauhaus buildings. Stockhausen, as he admitted to Jonathan Cott, has projected the house by himself in serial proportions. We recognize it in number of rooms which is the same as some of Stockhausen’s musical series or formulas (for example formula in MANTRA or Michael formula form LICHT). Stockhausen: “It has very much to do with the way I compose serial music. In their larger sections GRUPPEN and ZEITMASSE are proportioned in a similar way. Each side of the wall has a different length from another, there’s that irregularity. It’s the permutation of different measures for height, volume, length and width. MANTRA, too, would be very close to this house.”2
Stockhausen was always concerned in architecture and saw in it music in other density. Stockhausen: “Even as a student when I counted the windows every time I went along a street in Cologne: how many to the left, to the wright, how many on top, how many below, whether there was the same number of windows, whether they were the same size and how they were arranges. It’s like a sixth sense of mine and it always makes me measure architecture because off course I know that a temple, in all its dimensions, reflects the profound secret of harmony that is mathematically sound, and that good music is the same. That is why it fascinates me.”3
Temples were concerning Stockhausen particularly, as they reflect to the higher, cosmic order. Wherever he travelled he always visited local cult-place and temples of different religions. After each visit he prepared sketches, analysed them and compared looking for common elements and also some kind of musical shapes, measures, rhythms. He believed that exist strict relationship between music and architecture and that this relationship has sacral, spiritual dimension which comes from good measures.
Stockhausen was also interested in work of Le Corbusier and his theory of Modulator, which he treated as a musical, serial view on architecture.
Le Corbusier referred to old Pythagorean-Boethian philosophy of number, measure and harmony. His ultramodern architecture was culmination of this tradition, as he thought. It was also synthesis of all existing conceptions of proportions. The same thought about his Stockhausen.
Permutations of the given scale of proportions allowed Le Corbusier to create different buildings (in dependence on the place in the earth and bodies of its inhabitants), which keep common feature: they sign into the wild context of knowledge about universe. Modulator was metaphysically marked attempt to find common denominator for architecture, number, proportion and music.
Modulator as a kind of magical practice had to bring people closer to the cognition and understanding the universe in its complexity and fullness. Architecture is though a model of the universe. The esoteric aura of Le Corbusier’s practice was important for Stockhausen. He recognized him not only as an avant-garde architect but also spiritual leader, shaman, priest of modernity and mentioned his name with mystics like Sri Aurobindo. Stockhausen: “There are a lot of books, which impressed me. One of them is Le Corbusier’s Modulator. I often referred to this serial architecture.”4
In Modulator Theory intrigued Stockhausen just metaphysical, cosmic embrace of architecture. His visionary conception of musical-cosmic architecture Le Corbusier completed with Pseudo-Dionysian association measure with light. For Le Corbusier the most spectacular project combining three “parameters of metaphysics” – architecture, music and light – was Philips Pavilion at the World Expo in Brussels 1958. Stockhausen realized it in his monumental operatic cycle LICHT.
Stockhausen had dreams in which he saw stairs going through his house from food to top of the mountain. The house was quit invisible. Later Stockhausen had a vision of utopian architecture: “I can imagine architecture from light, which realized itself directly just by will of imagination, not by drawing project, which during two, three or more years become its shape by hard work of uncountable number of people’s hands, by manual slave labour. I see strict architecture unifying moment of conceiving and realizing. All it exists in my mind and allows materialize: if not on this small and primitive planet, maybe in some other place in the universe.”5
In composer’s opinion new technologies enable in the future realization of “immaterial” projects. Therefore Stockhausen didn’t bother with stage realities in his operas and spun his incredible theatrical visions. In 3. Act of DONNERSTAG aus LICHT there is “heaven’s residence” (“himmlisches Residenz”). The stage designer of Milan premiere in 1981 – Gae Aulenti, who is an architect and light designer in one person – had to create on the La Scala stage heaven’s building. Stockhausen explained her, how this scenery should look like. Stockhausen: “Light, all shapes of light are transparent and architecture also should be transparent.”6
The idea of symbolical „space of light” was developed in Weimar’s Bauhaus. Some projects seem to be interesting in context of Stockhausen’s LICHT. For example The Tower of Light also called The Tower of Fire created by Johannes Itten in 1919. This “architectural plastic composition” – as Itten called his work – consisted of 12 color fans, narrowing spirally to the top. Construction was based on proportions, derived from strict mathematical calculations.
The Tower of Light was symbolical object and presented cosmological vision, in which 12-part structure referred to 12 stages of evolution form minerals, through plants, animals, human beings, to Logos and Sun as synonymous of Good. The Tower of Light reflected to 12 star signs, 4 elements and densities. It was “cosmic allegory” and “emanation of heaven’s vigor”. In Weimar’s Bauhaus were realized many similar projects, such as The Spiral Tower (1920) of Nicolai Wassiliew or The Temple of Light (1920-1921) of Otto Linding.7
The interest of creating symbolical space of light was one of the most important issues in early Bauhaus history, particularly in Weimar department. Members of this school put together modernistic constructivism and esoteric conceptions. This attitude seems to be quite similar to the Stockhausen’s one. Also his idea of bodiless “architecture of thought” Stockhausen shared with Bauhaus.
But mystical parallels of light, music and architecture as the construction based on cosmic proportions are much elder and turn back to Middle Ages. There were involved with birth and development of gothic cathedral. Stockhausen often recalled gothic cathedral when talking about his music. Once again the composer emphasized connections between music and architecture. Stockhausen: “I see the similarities between my music and gothic architecture: on each large arch there are many smaller – for example in portal: two arches above one, four above two, eight above four etc. Sometimes there are also progressions: 1-2-3-5-8. Look at the cathedral St. Gereon in Cologne. On the tower there are such arrangements: above two arches we have three identically divided and then five, than eight. This is Fibonacci sequence – the process of growing from small element to large one. In isorhythmic motets proportions between cantus firmus and the rest of voices are analogue.”8
Gothic style was combining architecture, music and mystic. Cathedral was model of the universe which was created by Good in best possible proportions. The same proportions which St. Augustine and Boethius attributed to music. Recalling opinion of one of XII-century thinkers, Otto von Simson quotes that Good was “proficient architect, who build cosmos as his royal palace, unifying magnitude of creation with subtle chains of musical harmony.”9
As Simson wrote, gothic cathedral incorporate not only measures but also light. In Middle Ages it was just impossible to separate philosophy of number from metaphysics of light. For Neo-Platonic thinkers – particularly for Dionysius the Areopagite – metaphysics of light was the synonymous of mathematical perfection and harmony of the universe. Simson: “The light is common feature all things, as a basic element connecting them. In esthetical categories light realizes – as harmony in music – attempt to final agreement, to fuse multiplicity in unity, this quality basic for medieval feel of beauty and medieval believe.”10
Light, musical harmony and good measures were in medieval philosophy and esthetics necessary conditions in order to experience of universe perfection and power of Good. This Neo-Platonic tradition has rebirthed in early 20th century esoteric modernism. Strict construction, mathematical qualities in ultramodern form leads to metaphysics of light. Light as a good measure, creative and ordering power we can refer to conception and title of Stockhausen’s cycle LICHT which is contemporary variant of this monumental, transparent sound cathedral.
Invoked in the context of LICHT „Neo-Platonic orgy of light metaphysics” is the key to understand symbolical beauty of gothic cathedral, but also medieval art, especially colored stained glass and mosaic. Relationship between color and light has long tradition, many philosophers and artists, for example Aristotle, Dionysius the Areopagite and Goethe, mentioned that color is the result of combination of light and darkness. From this point of view comes specific dialectic regard on good and evil. There is no absolute darkness it’s only a shadow on light. In Stockhausen’s LICHT we recognize this dialectics of light and darkness, good and evil, particularly in his opera SAMSTAG dedicated to Lucifer. Color in LICHT is symbolic layer and extra means used to express and emphasize duality – positive and negative – in experience of Good.
In history of art there were a lot of conceptions involving color with sound or vice versa. Some of them come from synesthetic experiences. We know a lot of such systems, for example that of Newton and Kandinsky. In Arnold Schönberg’s opera Die Glückliche Hand composer assigned stage light to some instruments. Red light accompanies brass fanfare and when we here trumpet the light changes into yellow. Also Stockhausen did strict light and color descriptions in his scores, for example in LUZIFERS TRAUM, 1. scene of SAMSTAG aus LICHT, where five time layers of composition are illustrated by five colored light layers.
Synesthetic correlation of colors and sound as a conception of new art its apogee achieved in early 20th century modernism. The significant example of this modernistic synesthesia is Prometheus written by Alexander Scriabin in 1909-1911 in which he tried to create piece of music and color lights. Scriabin wanted also to write a piece in which music and lights would be enriched with fragrances. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize his idea. Although we can see it in Stockhausen’s piece DÜFTE-ZEICHEN, 4. scene SONNTAG aus LICHT, where fragrances are attributed to signs and sounds.
Stockhausen knew what synesthetic experience is, what we see in his music (not only LICHT, but also for example in TRANS). In the interview with Jonathan Cott he told that he had his color of perfection. Stockhausen: “I’ve discovered that when there are very good moments when we are performing or when I’m listening to other music, then it becomes just red-violet, no shapes, it’s all just like a curtain.”11
Once again we go back to Bauhaus. Johannes Itten created his own theory of colors which was based on musical twelve-ton tempered scale of Joseph Mathias Hauer.12 The most interesting case in context of LICHT would be projects of Claude Bragdon who was visionary architect and theoretic of fourth dimension. He built color organs and was performing a lot of concerts near 1915. He imagined also nonmaterial light constructions, quite similar to Stockhausen’s one: “Color without form is like soul without body; but the body of light has to stay without any thought about materiality.”13
In his operatic cycle LICHT Stockhausen refers to an old tradition of esoteric modernism which developed in early 20th century. Typical for artists involved with Bauhaus or some theosophical fellowships was to combine modern, futuristic form of art and new media (like color organs) with some elements of color’ and sound’s symbolism. Esoteric inspiration comes together with strict constructivism and avant-garde attitude; mysticism of light was concerned with mathematical qualities and good measures – even if it was only conceptual idea of immaterial architecture. In some extent music is like immaterial mystical architecture of vibrations, colors and lights, based on proportions, and the model case of this conception of art we have in Stockhausen’s œvre.
1. Jonathan Cott, Stockhausen. Conversations with the Composer, London 1974, p. 17.
2. Cott, p. 18.
3. Michael Kurtz, Stockhausen. A Biography, translated by Richard Toop, London 1994, p. 154.
4. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Texte zur Musik, B. 5/6, Du-Mont Buchverlag, Köln 1988, p. 312-313.
5. Stockhausen, p. 241.
6. Stockhausen, p. 244.
7. Christoph Wagner, “Wieża ognia”. Przestrzenie światła. Światło w przestrzeni, [w:] „autoportret” 25-26/ 2008-2009; Ch. Wagner (Hrsg.), Esoterik am Bauhaus. Eine Revision der Moderne?, Regensburg 2009 (Regensburgen Studien zur Kunstgeschichte, B. 1); R. Bothe, Der Turm des Feuers [w:] Das frühe Bauhaus und Johannes Itten, hrsg. R. Bothe, Ostfildern–Ruit 1994, p. 73-82.
8. Rudolf Frisius, Karlheiz Stockhausen I. Einführung in das Gesamtwerk. Gespräche mit Karlheinz Stockhausen, Schott Music, Mainz 1996, p. 295.
9. Otto von Simson, Katedra gotycka, jej narodziny i znaczenie, tłum. Anna Palińska, Warszawa 1989, p. 59.
10. Simson, p. 86-87.
11. Cott, p. 41.
12. John Gage, Kolor i kultura. Teoria i znaczenie koloru od antyku do abstrakcji, tłum. Joanna Holzman, Wydawnictwo Universitas, Kraków 2008, p. 242-245.
13. Gage, p. 245.